Thursday, 27 April 2017

TV58: 11.22.63



With a few exceptions (The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile, Stand By Me), it has proven notoriously difficult to make a quality screen entertainment out of Stephen King’s novels. I think 11.22.63 is King’s best novel since The Dark Tower, so when I saw the critical acclaim and the high ratings from viewers, I had high expectations for the eight-episode miniseries. But 11.22.63 is not, in my opinion, one of the exceptions - not even close.

11.22.63 stars James Franco as Jake Epping (or Jake Amberson), an English teacher in small-town Maine whose friend, Al Templeton (Chris Cooper), shows him a time portal in the closet of his diner. The portal has limited capabilities: it can only go back to the same day in October, 1960. And while a person can go back into the past and change history, that history is automatically reset if that person tries to go back in the past again. So to prevent the assassination of John F. Kennedy on 11.22.63 (what better use of a time portal going back to 1960?), Jake will need to live in the past for three years and get it right the first time (Al tells him he’ll probably need to kill Lee Harvey Oswald to save Kennedy’s life).

But first Jake wants to save the family of one of his students from the father who killed all but one of that family on Halloween, 1960. The catch in both projects is that the past doesn’t like to be messed with and will stop at nothing to prevent changes. Changing the past is thus going to prove a major challenge for Jake, even with the help of Bill (George MacKay), a young man whom he befriends in Kentucky. 

The first couple of episodes proved very watchable in spite of Franco’s unconvincing performance (I’ve never been a fan). But by the fourth episode, the wheels had fallen completely off the bus, with atrocious writing and directing that left me shaking my head every five minutes, wondering how anyone could turn a well-written novel into such amateur-hour crap. The production values are otherwise good, with excellent cinematography and a decent score, and Sarah Gadon is particularly good as Sadie Dunhill, Jake’s love interest in the past. But the story is so poorly told (you know you’re in trouble when time travel is one of the more credible parts of the plot) that none of that helps much. 11.22.63 is a complete waste of time. It gets ** for Gadon and the cinematography. My mug is down. 

Friday, 14 April 2017

Your Name



Your Name is the most popular (in terms of box office receipts) anime film ever made. For that reason alone, it was worth watching, even if I’m not as big a fan of anime as Janelle (for her, it was a must-see). 

Your Name is the story of a teenage girl named Mitsuha (voice by Mone Kamishiraishi), who lives in an isolated mountain village in Japan and dreams of living in the big city (Tokyo). Taki  (Ryûnosuke Kamiki) is a teenage boy in Tokyo who works part-time in a restaurant. One morning, Mitsuha and Taki wake up in the other’s body. It lasts only one day, but it’s a day of shock that will prove a huge challenge. When it randomly happens again some days or weeks later, and then again and again, Mitsuha and Taki must find a way to communicate with each other so they don’t ruin each other’s lives. They succeed in this until a comet appears in the sky and they decide to find each other, something that is far more difficult than they could ever imagine. There is much more to the story, and both teenagers have close friends in their lives who will get involved in the mystery, but I will stop there. 

Written and directed by Makoto Shinkai, Your Name is a beautifully-made and intelligently-written romantic sci-fi comedy. Its convoluted plot, which includes creative philosophical and metaphysical ideas, could easily overwhelm (especially with subtitles), but instead the film remains fascinating and enjoyable from start to finish. I did have some problems with the way some of the characters act (a typical complaint I have with anime) and, while I liked the ending, I was hoping for something more logical at that point, but these are fairly minor complaints.

Overall, I was quite impressed by this profound animated film that is mostly worthy of its popularity. Your Name gets ***+. My mug is up. If you have a chance to watch it on the big screen, you should do so. 

Thursday, 13 April 2017

TV57: The Leftovers, Season Two



I just finished watching one of the very best seasons of television I have ever seen. The acting, writing, directing, music and cinematography are off-the-charts for television quality, even for HBO. Most amazing is that this is the second season of a show which had only moderately impressed me in season one. Maybe that’s because I had no idea what I was looking at. But I still have no idea what I was looking at (as one of the show’s main characters says to another near the end of the season: “I don’t understand what’s happening,” to which the other replies: “Neither do I.” Amen to that). But this is television at its finest, a work of pure TV art that has shot up into my top five serial dramas of all time. 

My review of the show’s first season can be found on this blog (December 15, 2015). The second season continues the tale of the Garveys and the Jamisons after they move to the town of Jarden, Texas, which was the only major town (pop. 9261) in the world that had no departures. Was the town miraculously spared, as many believe? If so, what happened to the three teenage girls who vanish the night the Garveys arrive in Jarden? Is there a connection (other than the fact that Kevin wakes up at the bottom of a suddenly-dried-up lake tied to a cement block and is the first to come upon the vehicle in which the girls were last seen)?

Crazy stuff, you say? You bet. And it only gets crazier. I realized at some point that one of the reasons I was loving the second season was that it was pure Stephen King (yeah, I’m a fan), though filmed a lot better than 95% of King’s books. The Leftovers is often dark and twisted and occasionally violent, but mostly it’s mind-bendingly thoughtful and intelligent drama. 

The last two lines of my first-season review were: “Any television show that explores questions of faith and the meaning of life in a mysterious context is on the right path. My hope is that The Leftovers will get even better in the second season.” I don’t recall ever writing anything like that before. It’s almost like I knew it was going to happen. I don’t know why I waited so long to watch this, except for the bizarre coincidence (as befits the show in question) that the third and final season starts on Easter (in three days), which is also somehow befitting. Now I just have to figure out how to watch HBO (we have no TV reception of any kind). 

The Leftovers season two gets an easy ****. My mug is up for one of the best things TV has ever done. 


Tuesday, 11 April 2017

Get Out



I had heard that Get Out was a well-made, low-budget, dark-comedy horror film. That’s not exactly a favourite genre, but my gut told me I should take a chance on this one. Maybe I guessed that Get Out was not actually (by my definition) a horror film, though it certainly has the feel of a horror film. It’s also not a psychological thriller, as is the case for many so-called horror films. What it is (I don’t think it’s much of a spoiler), is a sci-fi film (albeit one of those sci-fi films, and there are many, which is made to resemble a horror film). As for the comedy, it certainly underlies the film throughout (as satire), and it is certainly very dark, but I hesitate to label Get Out a comedy because that takes away from the seriousness of its satirical message.

For me, identifying the genre is important because I’m a sci-fi fan who doesn’t much care for horror films. So I enjoyed Get Out more than I thought I would.

Jordan Peele’s directorial debut stars Daniel Kaluuya as Chris Washington, a young photographer who has fallen in love with Rose Armitage (Allison Williams), who is taking Chris to meet her parents at their rural estate. Has she informed her parents that Chris is black? Nope. But Rose assures Chris that her parents are anything but racist (her father would have voted for Obama a third time if he could have). So off they go. 

Rose’s parents, Dean and Missy (Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener), do indeed give Chris a warm welcome, but it doesn’t take long for Chris to realize that something is a little off. Specifically, Rose’s parents have a maid (Georgina, played by Betty Gabriel) and a gardener (Walter, played by Marcus Henderson), both black, who are behaving oddly and are being treated unusually by Dean and Missy. Things get even weirder when Rose’s brother, Jeremy (Caleb Landry Jones), comes home. Jeremy makes comments about Chris’s body that sound distinctly racist and Chris is starting to feel a little uncomfortable.

Chris’s discomfort, and that of the viewers as the tension mounts, will continue to grow when he wakes up in the middle of the night and goes outside to smoke a cigarette. While there, he sees Georgina in an upstairs window and encounters Walter, adding to his worries (astute viewers will pick up clues here that I missed). And when Chris goes inside, Missy is there to invite him into the study, where they talk about his unfortunate smoking habit. 

At a big party (hosted by Dean and Missy) the next day, Chris is confronted with more bizarre behaviour and overt racist comments, making him wonder, much too late, if he should have come at all. Meanwhile, back in the city, Chris’s brother, Rod (LilRel Howery), also has reasons to wonder whether his brother should have gone. 

Get Out is well-acted by all concerned, has a fast-paced, suspenseful story (barely hinted at here) that kept me captivated throughout, has many insightful comments on racism, is often very funny (in a dark way) and is ultimately a great little low-budget indie sci-fi film. Unfortunately, the graphic violence at the end is completely unnecessary (though hardly out of place in a ‘horror’ sci-fi film), making it impossible for me to give Get Out more than ***+. My mug is up, but be warned that this is not for the many of you who abhor violent horror films.

Wednesday, 5 April 2017

Beauty and the Beast



As everyone knows, I’m a sucker for musicals. On top of that, the 1991 version of Beauty and the Beast is my favourite Disney animated film. So it would have been hard for Disney to mess up this live-action remake for me. Disney tried anyway, but I still enjoyed the film.

Disney went wrong very early. The introductory pre-Belle sequence is quite good, but then Emma Watson starts to sing. I was impressed with Watson’s performance, which removed the doubts I had had about the casting choice. But apparently Watson’s singing abilities are not up to Disney’s standards, because it saw fit to autotune her voice. This was a major disappointment for us. Either cast a singer for the role or go with what you have (e.g. Les Miserables, La La Land, both of which made my top two films of the year), but don’t use autotune. We worry about a future where actors and songs will be entirely computer-generated - a very scary thought.

Then there is the question of the need to make a live-action remake of Beauty and the Beast at all. Or the question of whether Beauty and the Beast really is a live-action film. Almost all of the characters in the castle are CGI, with voices provided from a sound booth, just like in the animated version. So one could argue that this new Beauty and the Beast is half-animated. The CGI is outstanding, as one would expect from Disney, but there’s rather too much of it. And some of the castle’s CGI characters grated on me (e.g. Madame Garderobe). So the underlying cynical question of whether the new film is just a guaranteed way for the wealthiest studio in the world to make another mountain of money is a very real one for us.

The new Beauty and the Beast is a full 45 minutes longer than the original. For us, this is only justifiable with the addition of a lot more singing. There were some new songs, and we enjoyed all of them, but they don’t take up anywhere near enough time to justify that 45 minutes. It’s hard to sustain the magic of this story for 129 minutes and a number of scenes fall flat, making the film feel too long.

As for the redemptive violence at the end, well, given the original, we could hardly expect Disney not to kill off the baddie, this time in a manner that employs Disney’s typical ‘hand of God’, as seen in Disney’s first animated film (Snow White). But in a film that’s all about the redemption of a ‘baddie’, it shows such an incredible lack of imagination, not to mention a flawed moral compass, to insist on such an incongruously violent ending. 

That all sounds pretty bad, but, like I said, I quite enjoyed the new Beauty and the Beast. Alan Menken’s music (songs and score) is superb throughout, with excellent lyrics written by Howard Ashman and Tim Rice. The acting is generally very good, with the likes of Emma Thompson, Ian McKellan, Ewan McGregor and Kevin Kline joining Watson, who injects Belle with exactly the right amount of pluck and intelligence. Dan Stevens is good as the Beast and Luke Evans and Josh Gad are well-cast as Gaston and LeFou. The cinematography is outstanding, though too much of it was CGI. And Bill Condon’s direction is solid, if not as inspired as I might like. And then of course there’s the controversial scene concerning LeFou’s sexual orientation, which is hardly controversial for me.

The best things about this remake of Beauty and the Beast are the new songs and scenes that made me momentarily forget that I had seen this film many times before. There is still some magic here, literally in the case of the presence of Agathe, the Enchantress (Hattie Morahan). If only it could have been sustained a little longer (i.e. with more singing, as I suggested earlier). 

In the end, what pushes Beauty and the Beast over the line to ***+ are the end-credits, among the best I’ve ever seen or listened to. My mug is up. 

Sunday, 2 April 2017

Paterson



An ordinary week in the ordinary life of an ordinary bus driver named Paterson in the ordinary city of Paterson, New Jersey. Paterson does basically the same thing day after day, returning home to his partner and their dog, straightening the mailbox in front of their small house, and then walking the dog to the neighbourhood bar, where he stops for a beer and a chat with the bartender.

Wow.

No, seriously, WOW! The latest film by Jim Jarmusch, which was released last year but didn’t find its way to Winnipeg until now, is so full of ideas and symbols and empathy and the joy and necessity of creativity in everyday life that it completely overwhelmed me. Fortunately, Janelle was there to explain all the symbolism to me (the yin and the yang, the opposites that need each other for wholeness, the duality that’s a necessary part of our daily life), something which few critics seemed to pick up on (though they all loved the film). 

Paterson is no ordinary film. From beginning to end, it is a beautiful poem about the life of an extraordinary poet. Yes, I lied. Paterson, played to perfection by Adam Driver, is no ordinary bus driver. He’s a poet who starts each day by writing a poem in his secret notebook. His partner, Laura (Golshifteh Farahani), tells him he should get his poems published, or at least make a copy of them, but that’s not who he is. Paterson doesn’t see himself as a poet. He’s a bus driver who carefully observes everything around him and writes down reflections as poems because he loves poetry. He has no dreams of fame, unlike Laura, who has many dreams (and is obsessed with the colours back and white - the opposites that need each other).

In that ordinary week, Paterson will actually have a number of extraordinary encounters and experiences, some good and some not so good. For some people, the discouragement of the ‘not-so-good’ would be overwhelming, but Paterson somehow finds a balance between the opposites of inspiration and dispiritedness, as he finds a balance in his encounters with an incredibly diverse group of people, representing a variety of ethnic groups and personality styles. We all need each other.

Above all (for me), the film is about the need for each of us to be creative, regardless of how ordinary our lives are.

The cinematography in Paterson is gorgeous, revealing the hidden beauty around every corner of ordinary Paterson, New Jersey. The score by Jarmusch’s band, SQÜRL, as always, provides the perfect compliment to the story. The acting is solid throughout, with a special nod to Barry Shabaka Henley as Doc, the bartender. 

Paterson is yet another magical film from Jarmusch, though it's not as magical or marvellous as Jarmusch’s last film, Only Lover Left Alive, which is among my all-time favourites. Paterson gets ****. My mug is up and, since it was only released in Canada well into 2017, Paterson is assured a place in my top ten films of the year. 

Saturday, 1 April 2017

The Sense of an Ending



The Sense of an Ending, directed by Ritesh Batra (written by Nick Payne, based on the novel by Julian Barnes), is a quiet British drama about a 60-something man in London (Tony Webster, played by Jim Broadbent), who sells and repairs Leica cameras, talks regularly with his ex-wife (Margaret, played by Harriet Walter) and accompanies his daughter, Susie (Michelle Dockery) to her Lamaze classes. Tony isn’t a very friendly or likeable person, but he tries to behave properly and lead a good life. Then one day he receives a letter from a lawyer indicating that the diary of his best friend in college has been left to him in a will. Unfortunately, the woman who is in possession of the diary refuses to part with it. 

Suddenly confronted with memories long forgotten or repressed, Tony turns to a reluctant Margaret for support. As he recounts his college days and tries to track down the diary, Tony will learn things about himself that will change his life.

Broadbent is perfectly cast and I enjoyed every minute of his performance. The entire film follows Tony, though much of the time he is played by Bill Howle (Tony’s younger self). Veronica Ford, a major character in Tony’s college life, is played by Freya Mavor (and by Charlotte Rampling when older). The acting in the present-day part of the film is universally outstanding, but the acting of the younger folks doesn’t match up. Indeed, the film’s key flaw is that its many flashbacks are much less interesting, despite the revelations, than the story of Tony’s present life. 

Many of the scenes from that present life are filmed in Highgate, where I lived for seven and a half years, which made the film particularly fun to watch. 

The Sense of an Ending is far from perfect, with the flashbacks contributing to a sense of uneven pacing, but it’s a wonderfully humanizing story with a great actor at its core and gets a solid ***+ from me. My mug is up. 

Friday, 31 March 2017

Flying Home: Passengers, Jackie, Christine and Certain Women

On the flight back to Winnipeg, I caught up on four films I missed at the cinema. Three of them are about women, the fourth has been labelled misogynist. Here are my mini-reviews of the four films, from worst to best (though I consider all four films worth a look):


Passengers

Panned by the critics, this sci-fi film from Morten Tyldum stars Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence as Jim and Aurora, two passengers on a space ship taking 120 years to get to its destination (a new home for the 5,000 passengers on board). Trying to avoid spoilers, I’ll just say that Jim and Aurora wake up early and face some serious challenges. Michael Sheen and Lawrence Fishburne also star. Given the reviews, I was pleasantly surprised by this one, even watching on the wee screen. It’s not a great film by any means, but it’s an entertaining space yarn and the key moral dilemma is fascinating to think about (and not unrealistically portrayed, though whether its resolution is a positive thing is an important question for discussion). The acting was quite passable as well. Passengers gets ***. My mug is up.


Jackie

Natalie Portman deserves all the acclaim she received for her portrayal of Jackie Kennedy in a film that focuses on the week after JFK’s assassination. I also loved watching John Hurt in one of his last roles, playing an Irish priest who has some great conversations with Jackie (one of the highlights of the film). And then there were the many references to Camelot (the musical) in the last minutes of the film, which is guaranteed to impress me. There were many other moments in Jackie that impressed me, but not enough to make this a classic. My biggest complaint about Jackie is that Jackie spends rather too much time wandering the halls and planning the funeral. I know that this is a unique kind of film that’s trying to get into Jackie’s headspace during this traumatic time, but it just didn’t quite work for me. I thought the film should have tried to be a little more controversial to grab the audience. Nevertheless, a solid *** verging on ***+. My mug is up.


Christine

Christine, directed by Antonio Campus, is a very dark drama which relates the true story of a TV news reporter who shoots herself while reporting live on TV in 1974. Rebecca Hall is absolutely terrific as Christine Chubbuck, a smart young reporter who struggles with relationships and her career. She knows there is something fundamentally wrong with her boss’s emphasis on leading the news with stories of violence but can’t seem to get through to anyone (she would be horrified that, 43 years later, there’s still no one listening). Michael C. Hall is good as the news anchor Christine has a crush on. Christine is a difficult film to watch but I found it surprisingly compelling. ***+. My mug is up. 


Certain Women

Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women is pure arthouse cinema and will appeal mainly to lovers of quiet European-style arthouse dramas. Of course, I am one of those people, so the film did captivate me, though it also fell short (for me) of the greatness I was hoping for. In its slow, thoughtful poetic way, with no score, Certain Women tells the stories of four frustrated lonely women (two are in one story, the others in two different stories) in Montana. Laura Dern plays a lawyer whose client (played by Jared Harris) is making her life very difficult, not least because she is a woman. Michelle Williams plays a business woman who is frustrated by both her husband and an elderly neighbour when she tries to purchase a pile of sandstone blocks. Lily Gladstone plays a ranch hand who tries to befriend a new teacher in town (Kristen Stewart), who is also a lawyer but finds herself driving eight hours every week to a remote town to teach. The acting is very strong and many scenes are quite powerful. The challenges facing strong women in this remote part of the U.S. are well-portrayed. A solid ***+. My mug is up.

Friday, 24 March 2017

The Lost City of Z



I got to watch another film in Europe that won’t be released in North America for a few weeks: The Lost City of Z. Its premise sounds a bit like Kong: Skull Island: Explorers hunting for a hidden location never seen by anyone from the so-called civilized world (i.e. white people). But the similarity ends there. The Lost City of Z is not a silly action-adventure story full of monsters who love to eat people. Instead, it’s an old-fashioned epic adventure-drama (I love old-fashioned epics) based on a true story taking place during the first half of the 20th century. Indeed, this film most closely resembles last year’s marvellous Embrace of the Serpent, though there are enough differences to make this a worthy companion film.

Charlie Hunnam plays Percy Fawcett, a British army major whose previous experience with the Royal Geographical Society (RGS) leads to an opportunity to do some mapping in Bolivia which is vital for defining the border between Bolivia and Brazil. Fawcett, who has a wife (Nina, played by Sienna Miller) and young son (Jack), is at first reluctant, but once he gets to South America, he gets bit by the adventure bug, especially when he begins to hear tales of a lost city that may prove there were advanced civilizations in the Amazonian jungle long before Europeans or even Egyptians were building cities of their own. 

The RGS, led by Sir George (Ian Mcdiarmid), is sceptical of these tales, but James Murray (Angus MacFadyen) sees an opportunity for fame and agrees to join Fawcett and his team (which includes Henry Costin, played by Robert Pattinson) for a second expedition to Amazonia. Meanwhile, Fawcett has another son and Nina has studied the Amazon and wants to join the expedition, to which her husband naturally replies something like: “A woman in the jungle? Are you mad??” Fawcett goes off without her, Murray turns out to be a disastrous addition to the team, Jack begins to resent his father’s constant absence, and so on. Will Fawcett ever find the lost city of Z? I won’t say, but I will say that Fawcett accomplished much in terms of opening up the Amazonian jungle and treating its indigenous people like human beings instead of like savages or slaves (as the rubber barons saw them).

The Lost City of Z is gorgeously filmed, has a great score, tells an important and exciting story and features a lot of excellent acting. The drama, which focuses on Fawcett’s life in the UK, works particularly well. The adventure half of the film certainly contains many great moments, but it suffers from what was, for me, a serious flaw: A constant lack of clarity about the current state of each expedition (questions like: where are they now? what is their next goal? how much time has passed? what is the state of their team and supplies?). This lack of information created too much frustration for me to award the film ****. Too bad; this could have been a classic.

So The Lost City of Z gets a solid ***+. It’s a much better film than Kong, though action lovers will no doubt see things very differently.  

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Viceroy's House




While in the UK, I had to watch at least one film that won’t be released in North America for a while. The only qualifying film of interest was Viceroy’s House.

Directed by Gurinder Chadha (she made Bend it Like Beckham), Viceroy’s House stars Hugh Bonneville as Lord Louis “Dickie” Mountbatten, cousin to King George VI, who was sent to India in 1947 as its last viceroy in order to negotiate India’s independence. Gillian Anderson plays Mountbatten’s wife, Edwina, who is a progressive woman determined to treat the Indian people with the kind of respect not afforded them under colonial rule. Mountbatten, known for his charm, tolerates his wife’s compassion but all their good will cannot prevent the incredible tension and violence that is to come as India is split into two countries (Hindu India and Muslim Pakistan). 

Muhammed Ali Jinnah (Denzil Smith), leader of the All-India Muslim League, has long wanted a separate country for India’s Muslims, despite Gandhi’s clear warnings that such a division will wreak havoc (Gandhi is played by Neeraj Kabi). Mountbatten supports Gandhi’s position, but doesn’t realize that powers greater than he have already determined India’s fate, for reasons that are anything but thoughtful or constructive (as Mountbatten would like to be).

This part of Viceroy House’s plot is well done and tells a vital story that needs to be told. However, Viceroy House has another story to tell and gives it almost as much weight. That story is the romantic relationship between Jeet (Manish Dayal), who is one of Mountbatten’s valets and a Hindu, and Aalia (Huma Qureshi), a Muslim woman who works for Edwina. This relationship allows Chadha to come at the separation of religions from a different viewpoint and many viewers will no doubt be drawn to the story of the young couple. However, this story is much weaker than the other and weakens the entire film as a result by so sharply dividing its time. With a stronger focus, Viceroy’s House might have been a classic instead of an important but light entertainment.

I understand why Chadha made the film the way she did (having to do with the story of her own parents during that time), and her heart is certainly in the right place, which counts for much with me. But while much of the acting is very strong (especially that of veteran supporting actors like Simon Callow, Michael Gambon and Om Puri), too much of the dialogue and acting are not as strong as they could be and I can’t give Viceroy’s House more than somewhere between *** and ***+. Nevertheless, my mug is up and I recommend this film to everyone. 

Saturday, 18 March 2017

Kong: Skull Island



I had a couple of hours free and I needed a warm place to sit, so while travelling in the UK, I stopped in to watch Kong: Skull Island. It was one of those rare times when I watched a film before checking how it was rated b y my favourite critics. Had I checked, I may have passed on this chance to waste my time on this poor excuse of an adventure film.

Kong: Skull island has a lot of things going for it, like the interesting premise of a lost island in the Pacific, which is almost unreachable due to perpetual storm clouds. Then there’s the fascinating group of actors, like John C. Reilly, John Goodman, Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson and Tim Hiddleston. These actors almost made the film worth watching, but some of their lines were so cringe-worthy that the operative word remains ‘almost’. And Kong himself was the best thing about the film, rendered very believably and given a unique blend of characteristics and history (better than any of the human actors). And the cinematography was occasionally breathtaking. 

But all the good stuff went to waste as we watch one character after another get killed off by the various ‘monsters’ on Skull Island (sorry for the spoiler, but I’m doing you a favour here). There’s almost nothing original in how the story plays out, making that story not worth telling and not worth watching, especially with all the silly action, which often made so little sense you just want to scream at the characters for their unbelievable stupidity (like: “let’s go rescue a possible survivor even though we don’t know if he’s alive and even though we certainly know that many of us will die if we try it!”). Jackson’s character alone is worth skipping the film.

So Kong: Skull island gets **+ for all those good things, but my mug is down. Don’t waste your time unless you’re a sucker for romantic action adventure films (the way I’m a sucker for musicals).

Thursday, 9 March 2017

The Young Karl Marx



I’m on the road these days, and thus my lack of reviews. Yesterday, James and I were in Heidelberg, where we watched The Young Karl Marx, which chronicles the lives of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in the seven years (1841-1848) prior to the publication of their most important work, The Communist Manifesto

The Young Karl Marx is a French/German co-production directed by Raoul Peck. It takes place in four countries (Germany, France, England and Belgium) and its characters speak three languages (German, French and English). Unfortunately for us, the version we watched had all the French and English dubbed into German. This was, for me, the film’s biggest flaw, as some of the German dubbing just didn’t work (voices sounding too alike and often sounding ‘dubbed’ (understandably), which is, for me, a criminal offence in the world of filmmaking). I can’t really blame the filmmakers for this flaw, however, because presumably there will be a DVD which will allow me to hear all the words in their spoken languages (with subtitles) and that film will be much better than the one we watched.

Dubbing aside, I found The Young Karl Marx mysteriously compelling. I say ‘mysteriously’ because the way the story is written and presented would suggest that the film is lost between trying to present the ideas of Marx and Engels and trying to present an entertaining drama. In other words, it should be boring, but it’s not (at least not to me). I was riveted from start to finish, not least because the film deals with ideas that have not lost their freshness or relevancy even after 170 years (a depressing indictment, in my view, of those wasted 170 years, in which the capitalist experiment continues unabated and the world is run, more than ever, by the corporate elites, at the expense of the working classes). I’m not qualified to comment on the accuracy of the history, but I found the mix of drama and ideas to be just about right.

Another reason I found The Young Karl Marx compelling was the casting of August Diehl in the lead role. I found his performance convincing and sympathetic. Stefan Kornaske was solid as Engels, and Vicky Krieps and Hannah Steele were excellent as Jenny von Westphalen and Mary Burns, the women who played key roles in the lives of Marx and Engels, not only as their spouses (Marx didn’t actually marry Jenny until 1850, but they lived together) but also in the development of their thought. As James just pointed out, one of the highlights of the film was the way the relationship between Marx and Engels was portrayed, something that works because of the performances.

The cinematography and score were also excellent. I don’t know when The Young Karl Marx will come to North America, but if you are at all interested in the lives of these profound and essential thinkers, don’t miss it. ***+ (*** for the dubbed version). My mug is up. 

Wednesday, 22 February 2017

TV56: The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story



The first season of American Crime Story is really a ten-part miniseries on the so-called Trial of the Century: The People v. O.J. Simpson. Unlike many people around the world, including tens of millions in the U.S., I didn’t pay much attention to the 1995 trial of O.J. Simpson for the murders of his ex-wife, Nicole, and her friend, Ron Goldman. Perhaps that’s one reason the show didn’t blow me away, the way it blew away a majority of TV critics. The People v. O.J. Simpson has received countless awards and overwhelming critical acclaim. Frankly, I can’t see it. For a TV show, and even for a TV miniseries, The People v. O.J. Simpson is very good. But, in my opinion, it’s far from great.

The People v. O.J. Simpson begins with the police arrival at the murder scene and goes on to show Simpson’s arrest, the preparations for his trial, and the trial itself. The story makes for fascinating television, especially when it highlights the racial implications of the trial, which are, in fact, a focal point of the show. I thought that aspect of the series was handled very well, with lots of good writing and dialogue in evidence. And there were a number of marvellous scenes in the courtroom (and outside of it). But, in the end, The People v. O.J. Simpson suffers from exactly the same major flaw as most miniseries: it’s far too long for what it offers.

In particular, I thought the second episode was abysmal and I wasn’t at all surprised to discover that millions of viewers stopped watching the show after the second episode. The entire episode is about a slow-moving interstate car chase, in which Simpson, fleeing his arrest, is sitting in the back of his white Ford Bronco with a gun to his own head, while dozens of police cars follow. Sure, this scene was watched live around the world and was major news, but the very fact that this was the case shows how warped our society’s obsession with celebrity is. This scene deserved maybe fifteen to twenty minutes. To draw it out for a whole episode was completely unnecessary and very boring. I could point to many other scenes in the eight-plus-hour show that were unnecessary. It’s a common flaw in miniseries, so it’s forgivable, but this example of poor writing alone prevents me from calling the show great.

Then there’s the acting. Leading the prosecution is Marcia Clark, played by Sarah Paulson, who is certainly the best thing about the show and deserves all her awards for her phenomenal performance. Helping her is Chris Darden, played by Sterling K. Brown, who is well-cast and does a good job. Simpson is played by Cuba Gooding Jr., whose acting was generally quite good in its own way. But Gooding Jr. doesn’t sound at all like Simpson and his whiny voice didn’t feel credible as a representation of Simpson. So, despite Gooding, Jr.’s abilities, I can’t help but think this was a serious casting mistake. But not as big a mistake as casting John Travolta as Bob Shapiro, one of the core members of Simpson’s defence team. Regardless of how close Travolta came to emulating Shapiro, his over-the-top acting made Shapiro look like a fool and made me cringe most of the time. Other members of the defence team fared much better, especially Courtney B. Vance as Johnnie Cochran, who took over the leadership of the defence. Vance was superb, second only to Paulson. Nathan Lane was also very good as F. Lee Bailey and David Schwimmer had his moments as Simpson’s lawyer and close friend, Robert Kardashian. 

Other actors of note were Bruce Greenwood as Gil Garcetti, the L.A. D.A., who did fine, and Kenneth Choi as Judge Lance Ito, who was solid enough. At the end of the series, we are shown what people looked like side-by-side with the actors who played them. Clearly it was a priority to find lookalikes, because the resemblance is amazing. But rather than impressing me, this only served to explain the mistakes in casting.

I should point out that the cinematography was of the finest Cable TV standard. In the end, The People v. O.J. Simpson gets a solid ***+. My mug is up, but I had expected something tastier and more stimulating inside. 

Sunday, 19 February 2017

It's Our 10th Anniversary!


It has been exactly ten years since we (Walter and Vic) started this blog. During those years, the blog has evolved. At first, it was envisioned as a way for the two of us to dialogue about the films we were watching, with the hope that others would be interested in reading, and contributing to, this dialogue. However, it soon became clear that the dialogue element of the blog would be somewhat limited, due to varying opportunities to access and watch films. As a result, the blog became more focused on providing film reviews from our personal perspectives, which, whether or not it was overt, always included a theological component. Due to Vic’s writing of film reviews for other publications (e.g. Canadian Mennonite and Third Way Café), and his ability to watch far more films, he became the primary contributor, with Walter contributing as he was able.

In total, we have written 675 posts during the ten years, reviewing more than 750 films and cable TV shows. With less than 30 posts a year during the first four years, we have averaged 94 posts a year since 2010. Our readership has increased steadily over the past decade, with more than 132,000 pageviews to date. A big thank you to all our followers and readers, and a special thanks to those who posted comments. Please don’t be shy about joining the conversation.

To celebrate our tenth anniversary, we decided to share with you a list of our jointly-favourite films of the past decade, listed in order of how highly we agreed on our appreciation of the films. To clarify, this list does not contain all of Walter’s favourite films or Vic’s favourite films (annual lists of this kind can be found on the blog, generally in January), but a list of films that we are equally excited about (two mugs held high, as it were). So the first film on the list, Of Gods and Men, was, for both os us, our favourite film of 2011, the only time this happened. 


This does not mean that we think this list represents the best thirty films of the past decade. Rather, these are films that, for whatever reasons, we particularly enjoyed. While most of the individual years are equally-represented below, there are six films on the list from 2014 (the best year for film during past decade). Another stat of interest is that ten of these thirty films are foreign-language films and only a couple would qualify as Hollywood films.

Some readers may be wondering why we use mugs to describe our appreciation of films, something we haven’t addressed since our very earliest blog posts. Well, we happen to both be coffee lovers, so, ‘thumbs up’ being taken, we decided to lift up our mugs to the good films we were watching. The films below all got a ‘mug up’ from both of us, and the mugs were full of Colombia’s finest (fair trade, of course).
  1. Of Gods and Men (2011)
  2. The Lives of Others (2007)
  3. The Visitor (2008) 
  4. Les Miserables (2012)
  5. Calvary (2014)
  6. Short Term 12 (2013)
  7. Winter’s Bone (2010)
  8. Once (2007)
  9. Tangerines (2015) (made in 2013 but released in 2015)
  10. Monsieur Lazhar (2012)
  11. Captain Fantastic (2016)
  12. The King’s Speech (2010)
  13. Pray the Devil Back to Hell (2009)
  14. Ex Machina (2015)
  15. The Salt of the Earth (2015)
  16. A Man Called Ove (2016)
  17. Locke (2014)
  18. Ida (2014)
  19. Incendies (2011)
  20. Cloud Atlas (2012)
  21. Take Shelter (2011)
  22. The Ghost Writer (2010)
  23. Selma (2014)
  24. Pride (2014)
  25. Hellbound? (2012)
  26. The Way (2011)
  27. Her (2013)
  28. Doubt (2008)
  29. Leviathan (2014) 
  30. I, Daniel Blake (2016)


Saturday, 11 February 2017

20th Century Women



Filmmaker Mike Mills’s last film, Beginners (2010), was about his father, who came out as gay at the age of 75. 20th Century Women, which is set in Santa Barbara, California in 1979, is about Mills’s mother (his father is completely absent and apparently long out of the picture). 

Mills is represented by 15-year-old Jamie (played by Lucas Jade Zumann), who lives in a large house with his mother (Dorothea, played by Annette Bening) and her two boarders: William (Billy Crudup), the handyman and former hippy, and Abbie (Greta Gerwig), who is recovering from cancer treatments. Jamie’s best friend is 17-year-old Julie (Elle Fanning), who climbs up the side of the house each night to sleep beside Jamie. Jamie has a crush on Julie, but their relationship is platonic (at Julie’s insistence). 

20th Century Women is an ensemble film - all of the above characters (some of whom are quite eccentric) are fully-developed and given significant airtime - but at its centre is Dorothea, who, at the age of 55, is struggling with aging and with the rapid changes happening in the life of her son. She regularly invites men to dinner, and has feelings for William, but she resists deeper relationships.

As for her son, Dorothea feels that Jamie might need more than just one parent at this point in his life, so she enlists Abbie and Julie to help her parent Jamie. Abbie, a radical feminist, tries to help Jamie by sharing with him the most intimate details of being a woman and giving him books like Our Bodies, Ourselves and Sisterhood is Powerful. Julie, meanwhile, is sharing with Jamie the intimate details of her active sex life. When Dorothea realizes what she’s done, she tries to protect Jamie from the other two women in his life. But he keeps assuring her that everything is alright.

20th Century Women is a meandering film, moving through time and experiences in a quirky and almost haphazard way, but many of its scenes are absolutely magical - full of wisdom and astonishingly good performances, and, as the stories of each character unfold, we begin to see the larger picture of Jamie’s and Dorothea’s lives in a way that makes the film seem greater than the sum of its parts, even while many of those parts are profound and beautiful. The result is a deeply-satisfying film that feels incredibly real and honest, a depiction of everyday life that everyone can relate to in some way, full of natural and brilliant acting by all concerned (Bening stands out with one her best performances). 

At the same time, one gets the feeling that the story is a little too easy. Where are the emotional outbursts that usually accompany the pain and loneliness some of these characters are experiencing? Where are the tragic consequences of stupid choices? Or have films made us think that life is always dramatic? Because the film is autobiographical, I have to assume that this relatively calm and understated story is a reliable reflection of Mills’s life at the time. And maybe the story can connect more deeply with us as a result.

Despite the fact that Jamie is, in some way, the central figure of the film, what sets 20th Century Women apart are the strong, dynamic, fully-realized women, from three different generations, who surround Jamie. Each of these women is struggling to find her place in a life and time full of challenges for women. Though written by a man, this is, in my opinion (as a man) very much a feminist film.

20th Century Women gets ***+ verging on ****. My mug is up. While I wouldn’t recommend 20th Century Women to those who generally don’t like quirky arthouse comedy dramas, or to those who are offended by explicit sexual conversation, I think this underrated gem about relationships and community is a must-see.